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New Jersey casinos woo bettors with new sportsbooks

ATLANTIC CITY — Fans returning to Atlantic City last weekend for the start of the National Football League’s 100th season were greeted with new, multimillion-dollar sportsbooks as the seaside casinos have upped their game to attract bettors.

Caesars Entertainment Corp and MGM Resorts International have opened high-end, permanent books at their New Jersey resorts within the past four months as the state enters its second year of wagering on a high note. The investment by the two companies totals $23 million.

The Supreme Court in May 2018 overturned a ban on betting outside Nevada, opening the door for states such as New Jersey to get in on the lucrative action. Atlantic City casinos quickly created temporary sportsbooks to meet immediate demand while drawing up plans for more elaborate books.

New Jersey wagering has surpassed expectations, beating out Nevada for the title of U.S. sports betting capital both in May and July and could do so again in August. New Jersey handle totaled $251 million in July compared with $235 million in Nevada, while its August handle of $294 million is nearly 20 percent more than the Nevada handle in August 2018. The Nevada Gaming Control Board will publish August 2019 data at the end of this month.

Thus it’s no surprise that Atlantic City casinos are dropping a pretty penny for their new books.

Caesars Entertainment Corp. began operating Atlantic City’s largest sportsbook in June at the Wild Wild West inside Bally’s but held its official, splashy opening with three former Philadelphia Eagles stars on Sept. 8 to coincide with the NFL’s first weekend.

Known as The Book, the 15,230-square-foot space resembles a movie theater with more than 100 leather recliners laid out in rows before a 98-foot-wide and 18-foot-tall screen on a wall. Alongside the seats are six couches that hold up to five people. The area is similar in size to the sportsbook at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Similar to The Book at The Linq in Las Vegas, the one at Bally’s features self-serve beer and five private areas known as Fan Caves for groups of 16 to 24 people. People seeking to rent the Fan Caves this Sunday will spend a minimum of $400 to $600 depending on the size of the cave

The Bally’s sportsbook in Wild Wild West has extensive space around its perimeter that can be used to engage visitors — such as basketball or football tossing contests for prizes — or events such as fantasy sports drafting, said Christian Stuart, Caesars executive vice president of gaming and interactive entertainment.

“Drafts are huge now, and people travel to sportsbooks to hold them,” Stuart said.

Caesars also opened a new book at Harrah’s in Atlantic City in May that is about one-quarter the size of the Bally’s sportsbook. It features more than 50 plush seats, about a dozen screens and two Fan Caves. Harrah’s offers food service for guests at the book.

Caesars spent $11 million on the two books, Stuart said.

MGM took a different path with its new 8,000-square-foot sportsbook at the Borgata, making food and beverage the centerpiece.

The Moneyline Bar and Book features a 35-foot-long circular bar with video poker surrounded by 18 screens, including one that stretches 40 feet wide. It also offers tables and booths for dining and sofas and a VIP lounge area for hanging out.

Borgata already had a racebook with rows of seats and terminals, but Scott Butera, president of interactive gaming at MGM, said the company chose not to re-create the same wagering-intense atmosphere in the Moneyline, where the betting area blends into the dark background.

“Millennials want sports and sports betting to be part of the experience and not necessarily the whole experience,” Butera said.

The layout also caters to a lot of social gaming, he said.

Mobile, Meadowlands leading

Though four in 10 avid football fans will place a bet this year, according to the American Gaming Association, if they are in New Jersey, they are likely placing their wager via their phone rather than a retail sportsbook.

Though Atlantic City is the only location in the state permitted to host casinos, its retail sportsbooks receive only a small fraction of total state wagering.

Mobile has accounted for about 82 percent of the $2.53 billion in wagers placed in New Jersey through the first eight months of the year, with fantasy sports mobile operators grabbing the biggest pieces of that pie.

But that only tells half the story about the retail books in Atlantic City.

The state’s leading sportsbook location is the Meadowlands Racetrack, which sits less than 10 miles from midtown Manhattan across the Hudson River and thus attracts New York City residents seeking to bet legally. The Meadowlands Racetrack, where fantasy sports company FanDuel operates a book, has this year earned more wagering revenue than all of Atlantic City’s books combined.

“The sportsbooks do compete with one other, and they do compete with the online apps, so it’s a very competitive market for sure,” Butera said.

Hop from NYC

John, an avid sports bettor from Manhattan, was placing bets through his laptop while sitting at the Harrah’s sportsbook in Atlantic City on Aug. 31.

The 41-year-old said he travels the 2.5 hours to the south Jersey shore when he wants to get away for a weekend of gambling and relaxation. But if he wants to simply bet on games, he takes the short train ride from Penn Station to New Jersey to place his wagers through the Caesars app.

John — who asked his last name not be used amid concern it could affect his employment — said he regularly completes the roundtrip during his lunch break as do his sports betting friends.

“People who typically bet on sports don’t care where they do it,” he said. “No one is going to travel two hours just to place a bet at a book if they can do it on their phone closer to home.”

Bill Krackomberger, a professional sports bettor who divides time between Las Vegas and New Jersey, said that while the new Atlantic City sportsbooks are high quality, he thinks they will struggle to bring in people except on weekends and special events.

“I don’t think it is the golden goose for Atlantic City. They have done some great jobs with the books, but the fans aren’t there,” said Krackomberger.

Sports betting revenue at Bally’s and Borgata trail by a wide margin the William Hill retail sportsbook at Ocean Casino Resorts, whose fully built-out book was completed earlier.

The Ocean book earned $1.3 million in wagering revenue in August.

Tropicana Atlantic City and William Hill also opened a splashy new sportsbook at the Eldorado Resorts-owned property in March.

Nonetheless, Caesars and MGM are likely to quickly recover the investments in their Atlantic City sportsbooks. Borgata generated nearly $1 million in wagering in August while Bally’s and Harrah’s generated a combined $775,000.

William Hill CEO Joe Asher said the big numbers put up by the New Jersey sports betting industry so far did not come as a surprise to him. The market “has not yet fully grown” and has much more room for expansion, he said.

“The folks that have really made investments into their sportsbooks are really being rewarded,” Asher said.

People will continue to go to sportsbooks even with mobile betting for the same reason people continue to go to movie theaters despite the ability to stream at home, he said. “In the U.S., the sportsbook is a social experience. You are going into a really big venue to watch with friends on big screens and have some drinks.”

Sportsbooks bring value

Butera and Stuart said the value of the books to Caesars and MGM goes beyond just the sports-betting revenue.

The people who will pour in for football on Sunday will help fill rooms and increase rates and consume food and beverages on the property. They also might play slots, table games or see shows, the executives said.

“We own the entire ecosystem around the book, so we wanted to build something of scale,” Stuart said about The Book at Bally’s.

An attractive sportsbook also helps build brand awareness among the 24 million people who annually visit the seaside resort and stroll through the casinos.

The executives said the power of the databases and improvements in their apps will help bring more people to their Atlantic City properties and feed business to their sportsbooks.

“As the apps get more sophisticated, as rewards get more sophisticated, it will draw people to the hotel. The whole ecosystem of integrating sportsbooks and sports app into our property will start to kick and drive growth,” Butera said.

Todd Prince is a former Las Vegas Review-Journal business reporter.

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